Sportswriters who gushed at Washington Husky halfback Bishop Sankey's performance this season that included tying the school record of 38 career touchdowns probably took no more than a moment to wonder about the guy who set that most enduring of UW football marks back in the mid-'20s.
The deeds of George Wilson, who might legitimately be described as UW's first football star for his career from 1923-25 that included leading the Huskies to their first two Rose Bowl appearances, are shrouded in gridiron antiquity for most fans, who view the deeds of stars of their great-grandfathers' or even grandfathers' era with disinterest. After all, his record was established almost nine decades ago, but the curious or those hungry for a bit of history can learn about him on various websites.
Those who take the time to delve into history are left to ponder Wilson's story, which epitomizes the fleetingness of fame and the fickleness of fate, as for a mere half a decade his star shone brightly on the national football stage, first as a collegian then as a highly publicized pro football player.
Then, unlike some of his high-visibility football peers who managed to parlay fame into later successful careers, he personally faded rapidly from the scene, doing some professional wrestlingfor a for a few years, working in the Texas oil fields, then as a longshoreman in San Francisco, dying on the dock there of a heart attack in 1963.
But in an example of the often strange links in the chain of fortune forged by fate, Wilson, at the highly publicized outset of his pro football career, set the stage for a little-noted player from Gonzaga College named Ray Flaherty to launch a professional career in which he went on to become one of the most successful coaches in the history of the NFL.
Wilson, nicknamed "Wildcat," was a kid from Everett who had already fashioned a name for himself as a high school player who guided his Everett team to what was acknowledged to be the nation's best high school football two years in a row, before arriving on the UW campus.
Although the Huskies prior to Wilson's arrival had some noteworthy accomplishments, including the record of Gil Dobie, whose pre-World War I teams posted a remarkable 58-0-3 record,performances in those early days in the West got little national visibility.
Wilson, however, brought national recognition to the Huskies. In addition to guiding UW to those first two Rose Bowl appearances,he was a first-team All-America selection in his senior year in an all-star backfield that might vie for the best ever, a backfield that included "Red" Grange, the "Galloping Ghost" from Illinois, and Stanford's Ernie Nevers, plus Wilson.
Upon his graduation in 1926, Wilson was enticed to join the just-forming American Football League (not the AFL of later decades) by the league's co-founder, who had already lured Grange to join the league as his partner but wanted a name player to compete with Grange on the field.
Wilson was named president of the league's traveling team, the Los Angeles Wildcats. The league actually paid the bills and filed the franchise ownership papers for the team known as "Wilson's Western Wildcats," actually based in Chicago because of the travel difficulty of being based in Los Angeles in those days.
Grange's traveling all-stars and Wilson's Wildcats actually met on the field once that season, in Los Angeles before a crowd of 70,000. While Grange's squad, which later became the Chicago Bears, won the game, 17-7, Wilson outgained Grange, rushing for 128 yards to 30 for grange.
Wilson stocked his team with players from the West, including two from Gonzaga College in Spokane. In addition to Flaherty, an end, he tapped Matty Bross, a halfback, to be part of the western stars' team.
Ironically, as Wilson's star would quickly fade, Flaherty, who hadn't gained much attention as a collegian at a small school removed from high-visibility opportunities, went on to make pro football his career. After his year with the Wildcats, he moved to the New York Giants, where he was an all-star end, then became head coach of the Washington Redskins, where his four trips to the NFL title game and two championships earned him acknowledgement as one of the NFL's all-time best coaches.
Choosing Flaherty for his Wildcats and thus earning credit for setting the stage for what followed is a contribution not mentioned in the sports history books, and perhaps not other than this column.
The AFL didn't last and Wilson joined the Providence Steam Rollers of the NFL, where he played for three seasons, including 1928 when Providence won the NFL championship and Wilson scored five touchdowns and had four interceptions to lead the team that year.
There is still another irony, or perhaps small-world aspect, to Wilson's story. It's that another Gonzaga College player, Houston Stockton, was guiding the Frankfort Yellowjackets (later the Philadelphia Eagles) to the NFL title in 1926 while Wilson's Wildcats were gaining attention.
Stockton's statistics as a collegian were almost as impressive as Wilson's, including a 77-0 Gonzaga victory over Wyoming in which Stockton scored six touchdowns and kicked 10 extra points.
In that era when players played both offense and defense, both Wilson and Stockton were viewed as stars on defense as well as offense and were regarded as punishing tacklers.
But Stockton's exploits got scant attention, being played out at a little school in out-of-the-way Spokane. His national recognition was limited to twice being named an honorable mention All-America.
Stockton, grandfather of NBA hall-of-famer John Stockton, had joined the Steamrollers and was a teammate of Wilson's for the 1929 season, before he returned home to Spokane to go into business and Wilson left football to begin his mysterious decline from fame and attention.
Wilson's years away from the limelight were interrupted only twice for reminders of what had been, once when he was inducted into the football Hall of Fame and in 1959 when he was invited home to UW, by Post-Intelligencer Sports Editor Royal Brougham, to be honored prior to the Huskies Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.